Will IS militants soon be flying fighter jets?
Syrian activists have warned that the so-called Islamic State militant group is test-flying captured fighter jets with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots.
The jihadist group has been flying the planes over a captured Syrian military airport in the northern Aleppo province, Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told reporters on Friday.
"They have trainers, Iraqi officers who were pilots before for [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein," he said. "People saw the flights, they went up many times from the airport."
The IS group, which is bent on carving out an Islamic “caliphate” across Iraq and Syria, is known to have seized fighter jets from at least one air base it captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province in January 2014.
Should it be able to operate the jets, experts say this would have only a minimal impact as both coalition forces and the Syrian regime could easily down them.
But according to Wassim Nasr, who has been monitoring the IS group advance for FRANCE 24, it is “highly unlikely” that the jets are operational, or indeed that the militants would know how to fly them.
“The Syrian army evacuated all operational aircraft from the Jarrah air base before its capture,” Nasr said.
“They may have left behind a couple of MiG-21 or MiG-23 jets, but these aircraft require constant maintenance,” he said, adding that the single-seat warplanes were “not suitable for training”.
Nasr also cautioned that reports of Iraqi fighter pilots defecting to the IS group were “still only rumours”.
“Besides, after more than a month of US and allied airstrikes targeting IS group pick-ups and motorbikes, I would be very surprised if they had left fighter jets untouched,” Nasr said.
US officials on Friday said they had no reports of the militants flying jets in support of their fighters in Iraq and Syria.
“We don't have any operational reporting of ISIL [as the Islamic State group is also known] flying jets in support of ISIL's activity on the ground,” Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top US commander for the Middle East, told reporters at the Pentagon.
“And to the degree that pilots may have defected and joined the ranks of ISIL, I don't have any information on that either,” Austin added.
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